People’s Rights Trump Those of Institutions

By Raysa Everett, May 13, 2012

The United States is embroiled in an internal struggle over the rights of religious institutions vs. the rights of individuals. Of course I am referring primarily to the birth control debate in relation to the health care mandate. In this case, secularists fall heavily on the side of individual rights, whereas many religious conservatives fall on the side of the rights of religious institutions.

Certainly this is a difficult debate, as the right to follow one’s conscience is an important right. However, do institutions have a right to follow their “conscience” at the expense of the rights of individuals to follow theirs?

Remember that this debate does not concern the rights of religious organizations to discriminate internally in matters of doctrine or religious practice; the issue originates entirely from the secular activities and government functions of some religious organizations.

In our modern, multicultural society, we cannot simply ignore the rights of individuals to follow their own religious or nonreligious beliefs. The laws of this nation are made to protect the rights of all individuals and groups, not to force the views of particular special-interest groups on the entire population.

Individuals must be allowed to follow their own consciences, and not be forced to follow the beliefs of others as dictated by large institutions, religious or otherwise. If we compare the rights of individuals on social issues in the United States to those of other countries, be they predominantly religious or secular, can we continue to believe that we are the greatest, freest country in the world if we permit specific special-interest groups to control the actions and restrict the rights of individuals?

Institutionalized religion is institutionalized discrimination because religions have in-groups and out-groups; the government only has, or should only have, one in-group — its people.

When a religious group accepts government funds, it becomes a de facto branch of the government. Thus, regardless of how separate such an organization might think itself to be, when this organization discriminates in the services it provides, the government is essentially discriminating in the services it provides.

The government must be neutral on religious issues and provide the same services to all its citizens. Our government cannot discriminate against its citizens based on religion, any more than it can discriminate based on race or gender — although as a nation we have a rather bad history in all of those categories.

In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court declared that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. The decision ended state-sponsored segregation by stating that educational services offered to different types of Americans based on race is inherently discriminatory.

We can logically extrapolate from this case that other government-sponsored organizations that offer separate services — services offered in a different manner or altered by the provider — also are inherently unequal and therefore discriminatory.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin at the state and municipal level. Thus, organizations accepting government funding cannot discriminate against their employees or individuals on the basis of religion.

Allowing religious institutions that receive government funds to alter their services based on their religious beliefs violates the rights of the individuals for whom these services are to be made available. If we really believe in the rights of the individual, we must not allow those rights to be altered by any group, whether we agree or disagree with them.

Returning to our specific example of the birth control debate, one should note that the primary religious organization involved is Catholic Charities. According to the National Catholic Register, Catholic Charities receives about 67 percent of its funding from the government. Any institution receiving even 1 percent of its funding from the government should be required to follow the same guidelines as any other government institution, but 67 percent is a shocking amount that certainly qualifies as state-sponsored religion, in my view.

However, the debate is frequently framed as the horrible government attacking the poor religious organization for following its beliefs. I agree that Catholics and religious people around the nation should be outraged — not at the federal government for correctly defending the rights of all Americans, but rather at Catholic Charities for taking government funds. Had this organization followed its principles and not accepted government funding, this debate may never have occurred.

If religious institutions and charities do not want the government involved in their organizations, they should not operate with government assistance. Some Catholic organizations have demonstrated integrity by rejecting government funding, and I applaud them for doing so.

When religion and politics become intertwined, it can have devastating consequences for both. The separation of church and state is not meant to weaken religious liberty in our country, it is meant to provide Americans with a stronger, more just government and autonomous, integrity-driven religious organizations.

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